Greater Latrobe has already had one of its regular season football games postponed.
And with the uncertainty of when — or even if — the playoffs will get underway because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, head coach Jason Marucco said the post-season, in essence, starts this week when the Wildcats (1-1, 2-2) take to the road again, 7 p.m. Friday at Franklin Regional (1-2, 3-2) for their second consecutive WPIAL Class 5A Big East Conference away game.
“That’s our mindset going in. Our playoffs begin right now,” Marucco stressed.
Following two straight non-conference games and then having a Big East matchup postponed — and possibly canceled — because of COVID-19 cases in the Gateway School District, and with a condensed regular season to boot, Marucco and Greater Latrobe could make the case that the playoffs actually started last week against winless Connellsville Area (0-3, 0-5) after a loss to Penn-Trafford in the season opener.
And the Wildcats had to overcome a 13-point, first-quarter deficit for a 29-26 victory that wasn’t secured until the game’s final play.
“Obviously, it wasn’t the start that we were looking for,” Marucco conceded. “We talked about not having that happen again like it did a year ago, but it did.
“To our players credit, they had the resiliency to stick with it. We continued to answer back just about every time they (Connellsville Area) scored.
“Then, in the end, we made a couple more plays than they did.”
One, in particular.
With four seconds left and the ball on Greater Latrobe’s 5-yard line, Connellsville Area elected to nix a potential game-tying field goal and go for the win after completing several passes to get into that position. But, on fourth down, running back Ky’ron Craggette was hit first by junior cornerback Marco Mongelluzzo (6-0, 165) and then pushed out of bounds by junior linebacker Drake Clayton (5-10, 195) one yard shy of the goal-line as time expired.
“We had them fourth and long at one point,” Marucco explained, “and had a little breakdown in coverage. Initially, they were going to kick the field goal, and then they ran their offense back on the field, so we called a timeout to make sure we had the right personnel in there.”
That latter sequence Marucco referred to was a fumble recovery by junior linebacker Kyle Brewer (5-11, 170) with less than two minutes to play. But the Wildcats then went three-and-out, setting up one last attempt by the Falcons to win it.
“It started with that turnover,” Marucco noted. “We needed to finish that game on offense, but we weren’t able to do that.
“Then we made the play at the end. Our defense made plays when we needed them.”
And Marucco dismissed any notion that Greater Latrobe’s slow start against Connellsville Area may have been the result of that open date the week before. The Wildcats had 13 days between games.
“I thought we used that time wisely,” Marucco said, reiterating a statement he made leading up to the Connellsville Area game. “We had a great week of preparation.
“(Connellsville Area) made a couple of nice plays early on. They have some good players.
“It wasn’t all us. Some of it was their execution, too.”
Likewise for Greater Latrobe. The Wildcats got 171 yards and three touchdowns rushing from senior running back Dylan Gustafson (5-10, 170), and another 88 and one score — which turned out to be the game-winner — by backup junior quarterback Bobby Fetter (5-10, 165).
“I thought Dylan Gustafson was outstanding, not only the way he ran the ball, but the way he protected it,” Marucco observed. “They (Falcons) were really going after the football, but he did a nice job of securing it.”
In four games, Gustafson has rushed for 417 yards, which is 10th in WPIAL Class 5A, on 70 carries (5.9 average) with seven touchdowns. He also has two more scores receiving (seven catches for 134 yards) for a total of nine touchdowns, which leads WPIAL Class 5A. Senior quarterback Landan Carns (6-2, 200) and Fetter have added another 264 yards on the ground with 144 and 120, respectively.
That speaks to Greater Latrobe’s offensive line, as well. It consists of three seniors — center Alex Aiello (5-7, 210), guard Payton Hrehovchak (5-10, 190) and tackle Isaac Landry (5-11, 225) — and a pair of juniors in guard Tyler Lynch (6-0, 230) and tackle Jacob Brisky (6-2, 205).
“They continue to be probably the most consistent part of our football team,” Marucco said. “And that goes for those guys on the defensive line, too.”
“We’re going to ride them as much as we can.”
With the way the Wildcats were running the ball against Connellsville Area, they really didn’t need to throw it that much. Greater Latrobe attempted only 10 passes with Carns going just one of eight for 17 yards. He’s now 40 of 88 for 667 yards (sixth in WPIAL Class 5A) and six touchdowns with three interceptions.
The top receiver for Greater Latrobe is senior tight end Tucker Knupp (6-0, 225) with 14 catches for 249 yards (17.7 average) and three TDs. Senior wide receiver Nate Stemmerich (5-8, 155) is next with eight grabs for 140 yards followed by Gustafson, and senior wide receiver Luke Zylka (5-8, 165) and Brewer, from his slotback position, with six each for a combined 161 yards (85 and 76, respectively).
And Franklin Regional, which is coming off a 32-13 loss to Woodland Hills after doubling-up (42-21) Connellsville Area, is tossing the ball around more this season. Like Greater Latrobe’s Carns, senior quarterback Trevor Brncic (5-11, 185) is in the top 10 in WPIAL Class 5A in passing yards with 513 (43 of 69), in addition to seven touchdowns and two picks while also rushing for 121 yards and five scores
“They’ve changed up their offense a little bit with a new coordinator,” Marucco indicated. “It’s considerably different than what it was the past couple years.
“They’re throwing the ball more than what we’ve seen in the past. And their formations are more spread out.”
So, too, are the players on the other end of those passes. Senior wide receiver Mario Sarnic (5-10, 170) leads the Panthers with 17 catches for 208 yards (12.2 average), while senior tight end Luke Reppermund (6-1, 205) has 10 for 143 (14.3 average) and two TDs. Senior wide receiver Jeffrey Downs (6-1, 160) has nine receptions for 153 yards, an average of 17 yards per catch.
“It’s always about making sure we’re lined up properly to be able to make the plays,” Marucco expounded. “We need to recognize certain formations and who they’re trying to get the ball to.”
Even though Franklin Regional returned only one offensive lineman in three-year starting senior guard Dylan Llewellyn (6-0, 245), the Panthers can also run the ball as in the past. Senior running back Brandon Zanotto (5-11, 180) is in the top 10 in WPIAL Class 5A with 278 yards rushing on 48 attempts (5.8 average) and three touchdowns.
“It’s a typical Greg Botta-coached team,” Marucco added. “They’re very well-coached and solid defensively. They’re tough to get out of position.
“It’s always going to be a tough battle against them. We know what’s at stake.
“It’s a huge conference game. This is why you play high school football.”